Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2015

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Communication Studies

First Advisor

Depew, David J.

First Committee Member

Hingstman, David

Second Committee Member

Munoz, Kristine

Third Committee Member

Poulakos, Takis

Fourth Committee Member

Havens, Timothy


This project examines the rhetorical functionality of metaphors created and used by victims of Nazi terror during the Holocaust. Exploring the link between knowledge, thought and language, along with an examination of metaphors used by Nazi victims, leads to the definition that metaphor is a vital tool creator of meaning, not merely "ornamental." The project first aims to stress the importance of grounding theories that highlight the strong relationship between metaphors and the culture they develop in. By defining metaphor as a trope possible of not only describing, but also shaping the reality of its users, I argue that studying metaphors used by victims in the camps can reveal how they either retained or gained a certain degree agency through the performative use of language. I claim that victims created and used language to their advantage in a way that enabled their survival. Through this lens, victim power and agency can be evaluated in terms of language from a specifically rhetorical theory that stresses the always-active language user.

The research is a rhetorical-textual analysis of the discourse of the Holocaust through an examination of metaphors used by the victims and collected from survivor testimonies found in the Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. The theoretical perspective from which I approach this archive draws on an interdisciplinary theoretical background that includes the fields of communication, rhetoric, philosophy, linguistics, and social-psychological cognitive research, as well as Holocaust studies.

The rhetorical analysis of testimonies in the first phase includes extracting metaphors from Holocaust testimonies, identifying their vehicle terms, and finally, determining their functions in camp discourse. The metaphors are then grouped into five major metaphors that illustrate the functionality of victim-created metaphors and then analyzed in an aim to illustrate both the troping of new metaphors and the counter-troping of Nazi-created metaphors as a perfromative form of gaining agency. The use of these metaphors also functions as agency-gaining devices after the Holocaust among survivors making sense of their past experiences. The subsequent conclusion is that for those seeking to understand the Holocaust, metaphors are an important key necessary for comprehending the horrific realities that survivors are trying to express.

The project aims to introduce a new rhetorical lens to uncovering historical events such as the Holocaust. The twentieth century saw other regimes of terror intended to eliminate groups of people creating situations in which lexical voids are created, such as the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides. Since those historical events involve violence in such extreme measures that speakers turn to metaphor in order to both describe their horrific reality and gain agency against their oppressors, it is vital that we identify and define a methodology to uncover truths through metaphor.

Public Abstract

The dissertation examines metaphors created and used by victims of Nazi terror during the Holocaust and aims to prove that metaphors have a vital role as linguistic tools that allowed the victims to, not only communicate, but also make sense of a world of terror that cannot be described using available language. A thorough historical definition of metaphor is explored to situate it as more than a poetic tool used by authors to enhance text, but rather a creator of meaning, specifically in extreme or rare situations in which communicators cannot find words to describe emotions or their surroundings.

In order to examine the linguistic atmosphere in which victims created and used, it was necessary to examine the place the Nazi-created metaphors and Nazi language rules had on the ability of the victims to remain active human communicators. Existing Holocaust research on victim use of language further directed this research to stress the functions of metaphor creation and use.

The dissertation includes an examination of hundreds of existing interviews from archives used to find mentions of metaphor in Holocaust survivor testimony. The research chose to focus on five metaphors that illustrated the creation and use of metaphors under Nazi rule. The results stressed the important role that metaphors had for the victims in making sense of the horrors they experienced. The research also concluded that survivors continue to use the metaphors till this day, making the comprehension of these metaphors vital to any attempt to fully understand the Holocaust.


publicabstract, Holocaust, Jewish History, Metaphor, Troping


ix, 229 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 224-229).


Copyright 2015 Joseph Steinitz

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Communication Commons